Dixon, Willie James

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Dixon, Willie James

(b. 1 July 1915 in Vicksburg, Mississippi; d. 29 January 1992 in Burbank, California), musician, songwriter, record producer, and arranger who was the driving creative force behind the influential Chicago-blues sound of the 1940s and 1950s.

Dixon was the seventh of fourteen children born to Daisy McKenzie, a devoutly Christian restaurant owner, and Charles Dixon, who worked in a sawmill. Seven of the Dixon children died at birth; Willie’s six surviving siblings included three older sisters and three younger brothers. His father filed for divorce in 1912 on grounds of adultery; the divorce became final in 1913. Anderson (“A. D.“) Bell, who became Dixon’s stepfather, and who some have speculated may have been Dixon’s biological father, played an important role in Dixon’s early development.

Dixon’s childhood was spent in a poor integrated neighborhood on the northern edge of Vicksburg, where he attended the Cherry Street elementary school. His mother would regularly make rhymes for her children, a skill that Dixon acquired at a very early age. Dixon’s mother also required that he sing in church at the age of five where he received his first formal exposure to music. He was greatly influenced by the country-blues, Dixieland, and ragtime musicians who played in the barrelhouse around the corner from his mother’s restaurant in Vicksburg during the early 1920s, particularly Little Brother Montgomery and Charley Patton. Dixon and his friends often skipped school to hear them play. In 1926, when he was eleven years old, Dixon, who by this time had stopped going to school altogether, ran away from home. This began years of wanderings that took him on the hobo trails to Chicago, New York City, and all over the South. When Dixon was in his early teens he served two sentences—one for theft and the other for hoboing—on prison-farm camps in Mississippi. It was at these camps that he first became acquainted with various blues styles practiced by inmates.

In the early 1930s Dixon began to sing bass with a gospel quartet called the Union Jubilee Singers. The group toured the towns of Mississippi and broadcast a fifteen-minute radio show from Vicksburg every Friday night. But during the Depression, Dixon’s music took a backseat to working at any job he could find. He shoveled coal, worked a short stint with the Civilian Conservation Corps, and traveled by boat to Hawaii working as a ship’s laborer.

Dixon had been an overweight child, but by his late teens he had become trim, strong, and interested in boxing. In 1936 he moved to Chicago to pursue a career as a boxer. He won the Illinois State Golden Gloves heavyweight championship and sparred with such nationally known champions as Joe Louis. But Leonard (“Baby Doo“) Caston, an aspiring musician who met Dixon at a gym where he was working out, convinced Dixon to drop boxing in favor of music. Caston gave Dixon his first instrument, a one-string washtub bass. The pair made the rounds of the bustling Chicago music scene, often playing in the streets or passing the hat in the clubs. Dixon made his first recording while serving as a vocal coach for the Bumpin’ Boys in 1938. In late 1939, Dixon and Caston formed the Five Breezes and recorded eight tracks on RCA’s subsidiary Bluebird label.

During the late 1930s, the economic conditions of the Great Depression and the lack of opportunities available for black musicians made Dixon’s music career difficult. In the early 1940s his life and career were made even more difficult when he was jailed for refusing to be inducted into the Army during World War II, on the grounds that African Americans shouldn’t serve in the military when they were still being denied civil freedoms. After several months of trials and imprisonment, Dixon was released in 1944 but was prohibited from working in the lucrative war industries.

In 1945 Dixon formed the Four Jumps of Jive and cut four tracks for Mercury Records. In 1946 he again joined forces with Leonard Caston to form the Big Three Trio. The band, with Dixon on bass, played regularly from 1946 to 1952 and earned an enthusiastic following of fans. The group released its first record, “Signifying Monkey,” which became a chart hit on the Bullet label in 1946. They also had a hit on the Columbia label in 1946 with “Wee Wee Baby, You Sure Look Good to Me.” Around this time Dixon met the Chess brothers, two Polish immigrants who created the soon-to-be famous Chess record label in 1950. In years to come Dixon would work on and off as one of the Chess brothers’ busiest session musicians and producers.

By the end of the 1940s Dixon had firmly established his musical career in Chicago as a composer, producer, and musician. He became a family man when Elenora Franklin, whom he had met at a Big Three Trio gig in the late 1940s, became his common-law wife. He and Elenora had seven children but were divorced in 1955. In 1957 Dixon married Marie Booker. They had five children and remained together until Dixon’s death.

In the 1950s Dixon worked steadily as a composer, producer, backup musician, and arranger on some of the most popular blues and rock-and-roll records of the day, by artists such as the bluesman Muddy Waters and rock-and-roll innovator Chuck Berry. Dixon’s “Hoochie Coochie Man,” recorded in 1954 by Muddy Waters, sold more than 75,000 copies, and “My Babe,” performed by the harmonica player Little Walter Jacobs, became Dixon’s first number-one hit on the rhythm-and-blues charts. Dixon also had hits with Chess Records in 1960 when he produced Howlin Wolfs recordings of his own compositions “Spoonful” and “Back Door Man.”

The growing popularity of Chicago-style blues and blues-influenced rock-and-roll in the 1950s brought Dixon’s music to the attention of a white audience. In the 1960s rock-and-roll bands such as the Rolling Stones, the Doors, Cream, and Led Zeppelin recorded versions of Dixon’s songs, sometimes without proper credit to Dixon, which resulted in more than one lawsuit. Dixon regularly toured America and Europe in the late 1950s and 1960s with Memphis Slim, and in 1957 and 1958 he appeared at the prestigious Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island. In 1968 he formed the Chicago Blues All-Stars and released his first studio album, entitledI Am the Blues, which became the title of his 1989 autobiography.

Despite medical ailments that plagued him in later life—particularly diabetes, which led to the amputation of his right leg in 1977—Dixon continued to tour internationally and to appear at blues festivals in the 1970s and 1980s. He received Grammy nominations for What Happened to My Blues (1978) and Backstage AccessLive at Montreux (1986) and performed live on the 1987 Grammy Awards broadcast. In 1989, his Hidden Charms won the Grammy for best blues album.

In 1982 Dixon created the Blues Heaven Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted to increasing awareness of the blues through educational and legal assistance to blues artists in addition to instrument donations to schools. In 1982, after more than fifty years in Chicago, Dixon and his wife moved to Glendale, California, for the warmer climate. At the age of seventy-six he died of cardiac arrest in Bur-bank; he is buried in Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois.

Dixon’s catalog of over 500 songs—made famous by artists from Bo Diddley and Otis Rush to Elvis Presley— continues to be performed by musicians all over the world. He is generally regarded as the most influential and important bluesman of his day.

Dixon’s autobiography, written with Don Snowden, is I am the Blues: The Willie Dixon Story (1989). Shorter treatments of his life and career are in Current Biography Yearbook (1989) and The Annual Obituary (1992). See also Roger Wolmuth, “Willie Dixon,” People Weekly (11 Sept. 1989); and Thomas Duffy, “Blues Master Willie Dixon Dead at 76,” Billboard (8 Feb. 1992). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Chicago Sun-Times (both 30 Jan. 1992).

Richard Stringer-Hye